January 23, 2016, 10:47 AM · On this snowy day in Washington, D.C. it is easy to think about traction. We think about traction for our vehicles and getting from here to there and wonder if our tires are good enough. We question the salt on roads and whether they have been adequately treated so we can move safely from one destination to the other. Sometimes it seems at just the thought of snow or ice, the whole city shuts down for fear of lack of traction. It is all over the media – our trigger response to the weather and whether people think we are overreacting, being safe by staying put, or placing people at risk just to keep things on schedule.

It is also competition season in my violin studio so we speak of traction a lot in our work here. We discuss traction in our progress and the ease in which we receive and apply concepts. Over the past few years, with some of my most talented students, I noticed that the feeling of traction in their progress sometimes actually repels them or scares them. Then we hit a roadblock. Often as we break through to a new level of playing, we don’t sound all that great getting there. There is traction during this process but there is an uncomfortable feeling that goes along with it. We are moving but the friction is palpable because to make progress we have to back up, grip, and sometimes move through the ugly stuff.

At times it feels like quicksand! It doesn’t always sound or feel great and for some, it causes them to just retreat or avoid this feeling altogether. But we were just on the verge of a breakthrough! We hear glimpses of it almost like a sneak peek. For many, the parents are on board but the students are the ones that are fearful and uneasy. Enter more friction between parent and student and then teacher on the sidelines giving repeat instructions attempting to establish productive “traction”.

Of course the parents don’t have the same feelings of discomfort and unease as the students do in process. Some of it is psychological. Even I avoided correcting my bow grip for quite a while when I was a young violinist. I had so much wrapped up in how I sounded when I played. It was part of how I communicated and in some ways a large part of my identity. Violin was my outlet and my life was not easy at the time. The idea of sounding bad for a while in order to sound better later on was a bit over my head for longer than I would like to admit. But my teacher was persistent and patient and kind. He pops in my head a lot nowadays as I notice similar reactions in my students. They have to move through it and there is no mapquest or ETA. After all, it took people 6 hours to just travel the highway back home from work last night for lack of proper traction. They got there, but it was scary.

But what about the students who move at lightening speed like a race car that embraces the traction? Or students who have zones of learning where they embrace said traction while we all cheer but then get hobbled in the next turn? How can everyone be a bit more accepting of the feeling of traction and allow themselves to move forward wisely and without hesitation? These are things I ask myself a lot to encourage growth in the studio. I ask these same questions of myself as I grow my business and find myself with new clients and new challenges. Most of these behaviors seem subconscious to me so an open dialogue has proven useful. Once I explain my own experiences and what I have seen in other students in their journeys, sometimes we can navigate better together. From there, things have the potential to feel more fluid.

It seems to me that a common thread that weighs in here is whether the student is accustomed to a feeling of challenge and struggle. Many of my students excel so much in school they have never broken stride. That aptitude has attracted them to an instrument like the violin and it also contributes to them excelling here too. But the feelings of backing up, refining, problem solving only to fail and try again are relatively new to them and they aren’t versed on how to cope with these feelings. My own mother told me vibrato took me 9 months to master in large part because nothing had really broken my stride before. Navigating these feelings can feel like you are walking through mud. But with each met challenge, the navigation becomes more familiar and less uncomfortable. We learn to accept the feelings we have as part of the process and par for the course.

In my opinion, assessing where traction will hit and encouraging it for each student is key. Challenging them is necessary but it is not one size fits all. It usually takes me a few months to figure out where their stride will hit a bump. We move through it together while I watch the student’s reaction and tailor the next steps to them. I wait longer than most, observing children make mistakes so they can feel it, problem-solve with me, and correct it in good time.

Too often, I think, we stop kids mid-mistake, and they cannot become accustomed to the feeling of working through their challenges. It is hard not to step in midstream and make it all better, but allowing them to make mistakes works wonders. I now sit back and am fascinated to see how they react to their own mistakes. At this point, parents sometimes voice concerns. Kids are worried they aren’t moving forward at the same pace suddenly, and motivation can go down. Sometimes even the need to learn said new concepts is challenged, and I have to respond to that too.

But to me, these are life lessons in traction we teach in the studio. Not everything will be breezy – everything can be moved through with time. We won't always sound perfect or have a smooth transitions from one level to the next. What we CAN do is learn to embrace the process in all of its stages, and with effort we can find ourselves having a productive reaction to the feeling of traction. Our lives will be richer and then our music making will be more profound. Today I watch people in my neighborhood shoveling while it is still snowing, icing the walks and bundling up for tough conditions. Their eyebrows are furrowed but they know they must take these steps. They have been here before. And by midweek, they know the sun will shine again.


January 24, 2016 at 10:10 PM · This is a well thought out piece and is so important to the whole of life. Learning from our mistakes is key. Moving on from them is the next key. One of the best lectures I heard was one John Cleese make on mistakes & allowing your employees to make them. It is so hard as a employer, leader, to just sit back and watch but if we do so much more will blossom. A teacher of thought and depth.

January 24, 2016 at 11:02 PM · That picture looks like ice cream cake! Enjoy.

January 26, 2016 at 11:22 PM · Nine months to develop vibrato? Lucky you. I've been playing for six years and I'm only now starting to feel as if I'm getting it figured out.

But I understand how hard it is to encounter something that takes a lot of work. I breezed through school with hardly any studying, only to hit a brick wall in university. I never completely recovered, and my life took a different turn at that point.

When it comes to violin (or, in my case, viola), my latest teacher has helped me tear down my technique and rebuild it in a way that is starting to pay off. It's taken time - and in this age of instant gratification it can be very hard to take a step back and rethink things. But it's worth it in the long run - and I intend to be playing music for a long time.

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